Why John and Mary can’t read and write and spell

Reading Time: 5 minutes

English parchment

Twelve years ago I was shocked to find I had no idea how to teach anyone to read and write and spell.

For most people this would be no reason to panic. But it was for me because I was in my final year of teacher training.

Incredibly, I’d spent nearly four years in the education faculty of an Australian university and no one had mentioned the mechanics of the English writing system, where it originated and how to teach it. This omission seemed even more bizarre when I later discovered that English is one of the hardest languages to learn to read and write.

So instead of being taught something useful, I had to read scores of academic articles about how to create a language-rich classroom in which to immerse my students. All this richness and immersion was somehow meant to help children “emerge into literacy” provided they were “exposed” to mountains of print. In other words, learning to read and write would occur via osmosis with little or no instruction from me.

Despite this ludicrous premise, it didn’t occur to me that this osmosis theory is bonkers. So I went along with the charade until it hit me that our writing system is a human invention that needs to be taught. Like driving, for instance. A car is a human contrivance in need of a driver to navigate it around the landscape. Yet no one seriously expects a learner driver to “emerge into driving” by standing on a street corner and being “exposed” to traffic. Learner drivers need direct instruction on how to handle a car and no one is idiotic enough to suggest otherwise.

And yet, when it comes to teaching one of the world’s most fearsome orthographies, we seem to think the less instruction the better. And even when we do give instructions, they’re often wrong or misguided. This is a disastrous way to approach a complex written language and the functional illiteracy rate in English-speaking countries attests to this.

Strangely, this pedagogical boondoggle did not occur in the education faculty’s mathematics department. I have no recollection of anyone arguing that children “emerge into numeracy” provided they are “exposed” to lots of numbers. Instead, it was made clear that mathematics is a human invention that needs systematic instruction. Consequently, I was taught how to teach our number system.

Anyway, after I stopped panicking I figured that if I was going to teach children to read and write a difficult writing system, then I was going to have to do it properly. Luckily, I encountered a book by Geoffrey and Carmen McGuinness called Reading Reflex. It taught me the structure of the English written language, where it originated and how to teach it. It also confirmed what I suspected – that reading and writing need careful and systematic instruction, especially with an orthography as diabolical as ours. And the thing is, children can learn to read and write English provided those who teach them know what they’re dealing with. The trouble is, many of us don’t. Because we’re not trained to deal with it.

Here’s what we’re dealing with: A code. An alphabet code we inherited from the Romans, who, inspired by the Ancient Greeks and the Phoenicians, created it by listening to the sounds of their language and devising a symbol to represent each of these sounds. Consequently, if the sound-based nature of this alphabet code is misunderstood, then written English is not taught in the way it was designed. The result: lots and lots of people who can barely read and write.

So it makes sense to teach it well. But nothing makes much sense in our society, so the teaching of reading and writing makes little sense either. Frankly, I’m amazed anyone reads and writes at all given the poor training teachers receive and the haphazard way reading, writing and spelling are taught.

Something else I didn’t learn at university. A writing system like English is called an opaque alphabet code. This means we have more than one symbol for each sound and more than one way to read and write each sound. This contrasts with transparent alphabet codes like Italian, Spanish and German where there is mainly one way to read and write each sound. It’s no surprise, then, that this makes transparent codes easy to teach and learn.

And, believe it or not, English itself was once a transparent code. Here’s the sad story:

Once upon a time, English had a perfect written language. It was easy to read and easy to write. One sound equalled one way of reading and writing it. English was as near to phonetic written perfection as you can imagine. Two Dark Age luminaries were responsible for this linguistic marvel. The first was an Anglo-Saxon king and the second, an Irish bishop.

Astonishingly, in the wilds of Northumbria in 635 AD, King Oswald and Bishop Aiden created a writing system we now know as Old English. Somehow it managed to survive centuries of Viking mayhem before finally meeting its Waterloo at the Battle of Hastings when the Norman-French army defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II in 1066.

Old English then suffered such a calamitous decline that I’m thankful King Oswald and Bishop Aiden never lived to see its fate. This is because English has gone from a near-perfect writing system to a bizarre creature that needs to be wrestled to the ground. Where once it was delightfully easy to read and write, it is now a mad jumble of multiple spellings for the same sound and multiple ways to read the same sound.

Of course, the Norman-French weren’t the only ones responsible for this linguistic farrago. As I’ve already said, the Vikings had already done their best to obliterate Old English with their raids on libraries and monasteries, but early Medieval English priests, judges and scholars also joined the fray and threw Latin and Greek spellings into an already heady mix of Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Norman French.

The upshot of all this Norman invading and Viking pillaging and nerdy Latin/Greek obsession is that English ended up with no less than five languages and their orthographies layered over one another: Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman French, Classical Latin and Greek. No wonder modern English is so tricky to read and write.

Anyway, several years after I graduated, I felt confident enough to start my own remedial reading and spelling business. I had no shortage of pupils, all of whom were doing their best to make sense of a written language that made no sense to them whatsoever. At their first lesson, I told them about English and how it had once been easy to read and write. I then told them about King Oswald and Bishop Aiden. I also suggested that they blame at least some of their spelling woes on the Vikings and the Norman French and the medieval scholars and judges and priests.

It was at this point that their faces softened. Finally, they could relax. It wasn’t their fault. They were not stupid. They were just stuck trying to understand a writing system that had strayed a long way from King Oswald’s and Bishop Aiden’s original, magnificent creation. For theirs was a linguistic masterpiece that, had it survived, would make the lives of countless children and adults less miserable and throw people like me out of a job.

Reading Reflex, McGuinness, C. & McGuinness, G., Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999.
Early Reading Instruction, McGuinness, D.,The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on Dimitry Orlov’s blog

Author: Claire Bell
Claire Bell is the health and wellbeing editor of Midlifexpress. She is the author of Stone Age Secrets for Mind and Body and Comma Magic. Print and ebooks available on Amazon.

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